Female genital cutting: a rite, a torture, or both?

In today’s Times, Nick Kristof writes about the dilemma presented by female genital cutting. The practice, which he calls “one of the most pervasive human rights abuses worldwide,” prompts a critical question: where is the line between ending human rights violations and cultural imperialism?

For four decades, Westerners have campaigned against genital cutting, without much effect. Indeed, the Western term “female genital mutilation” has antagonized some African women because it assumes that they have been “mutilated.” Aid groups are now moving to add the more neutral term “female genital cutting” to their lexicon.

Is it cultural imperialism for Westerners to oppose genital mutilation? Yes, perhaps, but it’s also justified. Some cultural practices such as genital mutilation — or foot-binding or bride-burning — are too brutish to defer to.

But it is clear that the most effective efforts against genital mutilation are grass-roots initiatives by local women working for change from within a culture. In Senegal, Ghana, Egypt and other countries, such efforts have made headway.

I should warn you that the description of FGM/FGC is very graphic. And the article itself raises some really challenging questions, about violence against women, violence between women, and whether or not cultural outsiders have the right, the duty and even the ability to end that violence.

Of course, Kristof isn’t the first to cover the conflict between “rights and rites” when it comes to the practice of FGM/FGC. The amazing Michelle Goldberg wrote in The American Prospect about this very debate – it’s far more detailed than Kristof’s, and it includes the voices of the women who are on the front lines of the debate on both sides.

But what Kristof has going for him is the enormous exposure he can bring the debate simply by writing about it in the New York Times. Many of the issues he and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, wrote about in their blockbusting book Half the Sky, are issues that have been written about before, and often with more nuance, by other people. But the sheer exposure he can give a particular cause or a particular charity can boost awareness – and donations – almost overnight.

That said, if you’re going to read Kristof’s take, make sure you read Goldberg’s, too. As Courtney wrote when she addressed this very question last year, “this issue–though often presented as a cut and dried human rights problem–is actually deeply complex, colored by culturally rooted values, religion, history, ritual, and so much more.” So while it’s important to raise a broad awareness about this issue, it’s perhaps more important to raise it with the detail and complexity it deserves.

And it’s important to add to the conversation if you feel like it’s missing something – or missing the mark entirely. Kristof takes the comments on his pieces very seriously, and usually addresses them with a follow-up post on his blog, so if you want to weigh in, you should. This is a conversation we all need to be a part of, even though, and perhaps because, it is such a fraught and challenging conversation to have.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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